It was a City Council hearing featuring familiar arguments about mentally ill inmates in the jail system.
The president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association testified that his members didn't have the training to ensure that those detainees were receiving the proper treatment and questioned the Correction Commissioner's claim that placing them in punitive segregation accounted for the rise in violence and the use-of-force cases in the system. He also charged that city Health Department officials failed to provide the treatment those detainees needed, content to "just rubber-stamp the paperwork until something goes terribly wrong."
The Correction Commissioner said problems were being addressed by giving increased mental-health training to new Correction Officers in the training academy and by sharing detainees' arrest histories with both officers and medical staff, but acknowledged that progress was being thwarted by "unacceptably high levels of violence" by detainees with mental problems.
The Health Commissioner disputed their claims that 40 percent of the detainees at Rikers were mentally ill, saying her agency had found that roughly 25 percent of them had some form of "mental-health diagnosis" and 4.5 percent of the population had serious mental illness, but also reported that "half of adolescents arrive in jail with a history of both being struck on the head and suffering altered consciousness."
And a City Council Member questioned why some mentally ill inmates were incarcerated rather than being treated in psychiatric facilities, while also lamenting the workload for uniformed employees, saying, "You have officers in this city who are often working 72 hours or more a week on overtime."
One Key Player Remains
The hearing took place June 12, 2014 at the Council's offices inside 250 Broadway, across the street from City Hall. The key witnesses, COBA President Norman Seabrook, Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte and Health Commissioner Mary Bassett, are all gone from those jobs, leaving under clouds of various sizes, and there have been two replacements for each of them over the past seven years. (The City Council Member who expressed those concerns, Elizabeth Crowley, is also gone, a casualty of term limits.)
At the time, Bill de Blasio was five months into his first term as Mayor. Slightly less than three months before he ends his second one, the problems described in that hearing have grown worse, and the only thing he seems to care about is dodging the blame for bad decisions and inaction by pointing his finger in COBA's direction.
Under increasing pressure to actually go to the scene of the crime after a 51-month absence, he belatedly visited Rikers Island Sept. 27, and did so like a man with something to hide, giving short notice to the media and not permitting reporters to accompany him.
Asked not long after that by "Inside City Hall" guest host Bobby Cuza why he hadn't spoken to either detainees or correction officers "who are living this experience first-hand," Mr. de Blasio replied, "That wasn't the mission today. The mission today was to figure out the things that we are doing right now...the things we have to add right now to address the situation...So I met with the medical personnel. I met with some of the key uniformed staff leaders."
The obvious question was how candid those officials were likely to be, at a point when they were likely to figure there was no point in delivering uncomfortable truths to someone who, lame duck though he may be, could damage their careers on his way toward the exit. The Mayor's trip seemed entirely about quieting the clamor regarding his long absence from Rikers as conditions deteriorated.
Four days after his administration withdrew a lawsuit it had filed accusing COBA of having encouraged, instigated or condoned a job action in the form of the unusually high absence rate among officers, he continued arguing a case he clearly didn't think could be proved in court, saying, "The union's done the wrong thing. The union's encouraged absenteeism and it has been absolutely destructive. The officers that didn't show up to support their fellow officers did the wrong thing, but they have a chance for redemption."
A Skewed View
His suggestion that people were taking unauthorized leave with indifference to their colleagues rather than as a physical or emotional reaction to being overworked was startling, except for the fact that Mr. de Blasio has never shown much appreciation for the difficulty entailed in many law-enforcement jobs.
Eighteen months after he declared that assigning officers to work triple shifts because of staff shortages in the early weeks of the pandemic was a "dumb managerial mistake" that would be discontinued, he seemed blind to the fact that he had flushed his credibility on that subject when triple shifts proliferated in recent months, even as top jail officials denied they were being assigned.
Calling them "unacceptable" in the NY1 interview rang hollow. So did his remark to Mr. Cuza that followed: "And the Commissioner has been real clear, by next month we believe there'll be no more triple shifts, even double shifts...We want to create a reality where we can have officers as much as possible just do that single shift and be done."
This was coming from a man who has continued to insist that closing Rikers Island is part of that reality, notwithstanding opposition that has formed to the construction of three of the four borough jails that are supposed to handle detainees. Not to mention that even with the recent transfer of 200 detainees to state prisons, the city jail population stands at 5,600—1,700 more than a year ago and 2,300 more than could be handled by those new jails if they ever got built.
The target date for the Rikers closing has already been pushed back a year, to 2027, and Mr. de Blasio clearly doesn't expect to have to answer questions about the plan once he's gone from City Hall.
But that June 2014 hearing still has resonance 87 months later as a measure of how little his administration has done to remedy problems that in some cases have gotten worse under his stewardship.
'Not a Mental Institution'
"Rikers Island is not a mental institution where Correction Officers can be made responsible for medicating those in our charge to insure they're receiving the proper treatment," Mr. Seabrook had told the Council. He contended that Commissioner Ponte's efforts to reduce the use of punitive segregation based on the belief that this form of discipline created tensions which accounted for "more than 60 percent of the use-of-force and assault cases in the system" had been counterproductive.
"Part of the reason for the spike," the union leader claimed, "is that a small group of inmates have learned how to play the system, and the Correction Officers are no longer in charge of the jails. Inmates know they just have to request to see a mental-health worker to be classified as an inmate with mental-health issues and they can't be housed in punitive segregations."
Mr. Seabrook acknowledged that two programs championed by Mr. Ponte, the Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation and Restricted Housing Units, "are progressive, and if provided to the inmates who are truly mentally ill, without a doubt can be successful. But inside the CAPS and RHU programs are inmates who are gang members and inmates who are guilty of crimes and assault against other inmates, civilians and Correction Officers."
Rather than differentiate between those in genuine need of treatment and those who were gaming the department to avoid what correction unions still maintain is the most-effective deterrent to bad behavior, Mr. Seabrook said that "inmates who have mental problems should not be housed on Rikers Island. They should be housed in a mental institution and/or Bellevue Hospital Prison Ward. They should be in custody of mental-health professionals and not Correction Officers."
The Commissioner insisted that the two programs he promoted offered positive alternatives to isolation in the Punitive Segregation Unit. But he also conceded to the Council that "our management of the units has been continuously re-adjusted in the face of unacceptably high levels of violence...Just last night, an officer who works daily with the mentally ill population, is specially trained for this setting, and was following procedures, was assaulted as he uncuffed an inmate who had been progressing well through the RHU program and was about to participate in a group-therapy session."
Mr. Seabrook had asserted that the department was "more concerned with, and afraid of, inmate advocacy groups than running a proper detention facility."
Mr. Ponte didn't plead guilty to the charge, but he hinted at his own frustration in telling the hearing that he would like to be able to impose immediate penalties, including the loss of outdoor recreation and locking-in detainees during periods they would normally be able to stay outside their cells, except that such steps "are largely prohibited by Board of Correction standards."
He then added, "We must make officers confident that they have the skills and tools necessary to control their housing areas and the inmates within them to prevent incidents and avoid uses of force."
His stress of the value of increased mental-health training for new officers wasn't a huge difference-maker, according to one former officer who joined the department a year after the hearing. Much of it, this ex-officer—who spoke conditioned on anonymity—said was a repeat of past training he had received during both his military service and while working hospital security.
Because of his size and military background, he said, he worked primarily in supervision of gang members and other detainees who were considered at high risk for assaulting staff. Keeping them under control, he said, required judgment based on experience rather than the training: "I would just have to figure out what would set them off and what wouldn't, and sometimes just have to give them their space while keeping an eye out for them."
Dr. Bassett, asked by Council Member Crowley whether some mentally ill detainees were in the wrong institution, responded, "I don't think that all the people on Rikers Island with a psychiatric diagnosis need to be in psychiatric hospitals."
But she said that adolescent inmates who had previously sustained head injuries were at risk of brain damage from fights with fellow detainees or use-of-force situations, testifying, "In approximately 30 percent of violent interactions between correction officers and inmates, there is evidence of a blow to the head. We are in ongoing discussions with the DOC to determine how we can create a more-therapeutic setting, as data show that standard practices in the correctional system, particularly solitary confinement as punishment and reliance on force, can be linked to outcomes that we all seek to prevent, including violence against self and others."
Mr. Seabrook insisted, however, that the lack of meaningful punishment for inmates who acted up was what had created a dangerous climate in the system.
"On Rikers Island," he told the Council, "violence among inmates and toward Correction Officers is considered normal, and the blame is placed on the Correction Officer charged with patrolling this beat. What did the city or the department do about the crimes of assault [by inmates] that took place last year? What does the department or the city do for the victims of these crimes?"
A year later, a consent decree was reached settling a lawsuit brought against the city and the Correction Department by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, leading to the appointment of a Federal Monitor to ensure that the city was making necessary reforms. Union leaders claim this has exacerbated problems at Rikers, because the continued rolling back of situations in which punitive segregation can be used to discipline violent inmates has emboldened them.
One union official said that due to several bills approved by the City Council and signed by Mr. de Blasio in recent years, "Only under extraordinary circumstances can you put someone in punitive seg."
The Gang's All Here
The unions have also criticized the decision by Correction Department officials to cluster members of the same gangs together in Rikers facilities, contending it allows them to create small armies and control turf just as if they were on city streets.
The misgivings expressed by Mr. Ponte seven years ago about being unable to quickly punish detainees for violent behavior due to Board of Correction standards have not translated into changes. Mr. Seabrook's complaint that the department was more concerned about upsetting inmate advocacy groups than keeping the jails orderly could now be extended to include incurring the wrath of the Federal Monitor.
Mr. Bharara had made clear that he considered Mr. Seabrook and the power he had carved out in the jail system over more than two decades as president of COBA to be a negative influence on reform efforts. Nine months before his March 2017 firing by President Donald Trump, the U.S. Attorney secured an indictment against Mr. Seabrook for accepting $60,000 in bribes in return for steering $20 million in union monies to a hedge fund that subsequently filed for bankruptcy. After an initial mistrial, the union leader was convicted in August 2018, sentenced to 58 months in Federal prison six months later, and is now serving it at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution in West Virginia.
Dr. Bassett and Commissioner Ponte did not leave city government on a high note.
The Health Commissioner exited her job a short time after Mr. Seabrook's conviction, her reputation blemished, though not in a criminal way. Earlier that summer, she came under fire when it was revealed that more than 800 young children living in Housing Authority apartments had lead levels in their bloodstream of between 5 and 9 micrograms per deciliter—a range at which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a public-health intervention. Dr. Bassett had ordered the Housing Authority to inspect apartments only if children tested at 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher.
Caught Flak for THRIVE
At the time of her resignation to take a top post at Howard University, the Mayor praised Dr. Bassett for her work in designing the THRIVENYC initiative that had been launched in 2015 under the direction of his wife, Chirlane McCray. (Dr. Bassett returned to government service Sept. 29, when Governor Hochul tapped her as state Health Commissioner, succeeding Dr. Howard Zucker, who stepped down a week earlier after criticism of his role in helping ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo undercount the number of nursing-home deaths last year.)
By March 2019, THRIVE was under heavy criticism at the Council after published reports that it had enjoyed limited success in offering treatment and referrals to the mentally ill, with its best work concerning women who were suffering from mild depression.
Ms. McCray was evasive when asked how much of the program's spending was focused on addressing people with serious mental illnesses. It turned out that just $30 million—about 10 percent of THRIVE's budget for fiscal 2019—had been spent for that purpose that year. It was also revealed that just $560 million of the $850 million allocated for the first four years of the program had been spent to that point.
Neither the Mayor nor his wife offered much in the way of concrete results regarding the program, which soon after brought in Susan Herman, a veteran Police Department official, to run it. Questions linger as to whether THRIVE could have done more to help those with serious mental illness, from the street homeless to those who wound up at Rikers, if it had been treated as a major city program rather than a pet project for a mayoral spouse from its outset.
Mr. Ponte stepped down as Correction Commissioner in 2017, not long after the New York Times reported that the previous year he had spent 90 days at his home in Maine while using his department vehicle to travel between there and the city, a violation of city regulations.
Apparently life at Rikers had worn on him just as it has those the Mayor is now excoriating for excessive absences, even though his duties did not bring him into hand-to-hand combat with inmates, some armed with homemade weapons.
Definition of Insanity
Shortly after Mr. Ponte left, Mr. de Blasio paid a June 2017 visit to Rikers that was primarily intended to publicize his push to close the jail complex while also serving as a re-election-campaign photo opportunity.
Then he went back to paying the jail system no mind aside from selecting two more Commissioners who seemed determined to ignore union objections to changes in jail policies that may have satisfied the advocates and the Monitor but continued to have a negative impact on the safety of both officers and inmates. The Mayor's Management Report, covering the fiscal year that ended this June 30, found that stabbings and slashings in the system had doubled compared to fiscal year 2020, but COBA's call for additional hiring of officers under the budget enacted that day failed to get the attention of either the Mayor or the Council.
As the situation worsened on Rikers and elected officials who were finally permitted to visit it reported being horrified by what they witnessed—including an attempted suicide by a detainee—cries grew for the Mayor to go there and witness the problems and the human toll. He made vague promises Sept. 20 to do it sometime in the next month.
Three days later, the Federal Monitor, Steve Martin, released a letter written to U.S. District Judge Laura T. Swain stating that the Correction Department "does not have the requisite internal capacity" to implement security measures that were required under the 2015 consent decree.
The letter asserted, "The Department has, thus far, failed to effectively address the unsafe conditions that are posing an imminent risk of harm to those in custody." It also said that the safety risks "to incarcerated individuals and Staff are directly linked to and caused by the Department leadership's failure to address a wide range of security failures...This troubling state of affairs certainly calls into question whether Department leadership possess the level of competency to safely manage the jails."
Avoids a Perp Walk
In the court of public opinion, this amounted to an indictment of Mr. de Blasio's leadership, and he finally felt compelled to visit Rikers late in the afternoon Sept. 27, giving short notice to the media and barring them from joining him as he walked through the jails, though he answered questions afterward.
It turned out to be a quickie tour, the Mayor telling reporters he had spoken to medical staff and uniformed supervisors, but not to inmates or line officers. Union leaders were not invited to join him, preserving his perfect record of ignoring their input about the problems in the jails.
He had overseen the jail system his way—the laziest way possible—while hoping that nobody would notice. Three successive Commissioners had tried to ease off on discipline in the jails, and conditions got progressively worse.
By now, it should be obvious that taking the unions' objections seriously might have made a difference. It's hard to imagine listening to them could have made things any worse, either in the jails or in the eyes of those who are ostensibly looking out for the inmates.
Mr. de Blasio's trying to duck responsibility for the disaster scene he's choreographed by blaming the unions or—cue up the horror-movie music—Rikers itself, is just one more piece of evidence that he's made good on one election promise: to be the most-transparent Mayor the city's ever had.
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